Interview with James Thomas

Meg Pokrass interviews James Thomas, co-editor of New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018) about the forthcoming anthology, and about his history with publishing Norton anthologies of very short fiction.

MP: You are one of the original Norton Anthology editors who brought flash fiction to so many writers and readers through your Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction series, co-edited with Robert Shapard and later with Chris Merrill, and now with microfiction writer Robert Scotellaro you’ve co-edited New Micro which will soon be published by W. W. Norton & Co.  Please talk about your years devoted to bringing flash and sudden and micro fiction to the world. How did all of this evolve for you originally? How did it all begin?

JT: Sudden Fiction came on the scene in 1986 and, living up to its title, caught the eye of a surprised literary audience. Then Flash Fiction appeared in 1992, with stories told in half that sudden space–two pages rather than four–and the die was cast.  In 1996 Jerome Stern’s Micro Fiction dialed it down to a shocking single page, or 300 words.  All three books were edited by the legendary Carol Houck Smith at W. W. Norton—and now there are eight Norton anthologies bearing those iconic sudden, flash, and micro title names, Carol’s DNA you might say, and New Micro is the newest family member.  So that is my evolution story of where the books came from and how I now find myself on old and new familiar ground, cultivated for thirty years.  But New Micro would never have happened in the present time if you, Meg Pokrass, hadn’t introduced me to Robert Scotelarro (Scotty) in San Francisco: to his library, his tutelage and mentoring, and his relentless passion to select the very best stories we could find.  Which took quite a while. I thank them both for the exciting ride.  It has been a gift, an ongoing and uplifting thrill.

MP: How has the awareness of flash fiction and microfiction changed since you started publishing anthologies?

JT: It’s hard for me to even guess how many short-short stories I’ve read over the years, but it must be in the hundreds of thousands, maybe half a million.  Fortunately the first line has often been enough (whew!), leaving time to focus on the very few that are truly engaging.  What is striking is how the opportunities for flash fiction writers have increased exponentially in this century, with the explosion of the Internet and the magazines there where writers gather and model for each other.  It was bound to happen.  Now we’re awash in a digital sea of protean prose poets and first time flash fictioneers.  All good, the enthusiasm.  Molds have been broken and those pixilated magazine screens have spawned books in print, bound books where we’ve gone to find the stories for New Micro.  That traditional hard copy mode of research remains the same, but beneath it there has been a sea change and seismic shift, activity that is hard to measure but exciting to watch.  We are in uncharted waters.

MP: How do you feel the form is being embraced in academia? Is it being taught in graduate programs and undergraduate level? has this changed in the last decade? 

JT:; The sudden, flash, and micro anthologies have been the darlings of academia from the very start.  They all get exceptionally fine critical reviews, validating them for the university crowd, and they are widely adopted by graduate MFA programs.  But they are also used for freshman English 101, because the language composition is so precise and the story construction so visible.  They are easy to teach. The stories are small, tasty and digestible, and easy to discuss in class.  They are also used as texts for modern and contemporary literature study, where they celebrate both fiction and poetry and show the fine line that divides them.  But most importantly the books have been embraced at all levels because they are widely available and inexpensive.  Flash and micro fiction are cheap dates, there in a pinch.  They rarely stand you up, or let you down.  Just ask one out.

MP: While choosing stories, were there any stories that you wanted to include, but they were left out?  Any stories here that you especially had to include?   

JT: In reverse order, I am delighted that we were able to open the book with Pamela Painter’s “Letting Go” and close it with Ron Carlson’s “Grief.”  Both writers appeared in the original Sudden, Flash, and Micro anthologies (all three), thirty years ago, and here they are again, bookending each other in New Micro.  It means literal and literary continuity, and a symmetry that speaks to sentiment.  I do wish we could have included work by Carolyn Forché and Mark Strand, another pair of fabulous writers of prose poetry and microfiction, but you can’t have everything.  What we do have is New Micro, to serve as a reference text for a new generation of writers and readers, representing the avant-garde but also the venerable, cutting across genre and changing the game.  If I have the opportunity to make another book it will be New American Flash Fiction, to compliment Flash Fiction International, and go with New Micro. The operative and most meaningful title words for me through my anthology making years have been “new” and “fiction.”  They sum me up.

MP: What gives micros their power? Language? Silence? Structure?

JT: The power of micro is that it is telegraphic and telepathic, in the same place at the same time, where the space is small and time is short.  Confused?  Write it down to figure it out, like with a poem.  It is compression without compromise.  Compulsion okay.  Get in and get out, if you can.  Let the silence speak.  You’ve heard it all before: theories on invention and serendipity, urgency that can lead to epiphany–don’t think, think–with language flying all over the place.  It’s hard work.  Some people talk about tricks, clever ways to get there.  I only know that the good stuff comes from someplace underground and grows organically.  The really good stuff that surfaces is hard to find, like black truffles and albino asparagus and morel mushrooms, but we’ve done our best to hunt them down and gather them in, bring them to your table.  Delicacies.  Bon appétit.

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James Thomas has coedited all eight of the Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction
anthologies. New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, coedited with Robert Scotellaro,
appears this year. He was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, received a James Michener
grant from the University of Iowa, and been awarded two NEA grants. His own
collection of stories is Pictures Moving. He founded Quarterly West magazine and
was the original director of the annual Writers At Work Conference. He has taught
at the University of Utah and retired from Wright State University. He lives in Xenia,
Ohio.